Unsuspecting bargoers stumbling upon a Volva Stav session at Merlins Rest Pub are liable to think they've either been hurtled way back in time or to the rec room at the nearest "nervous hospital."

A circle of women and a guy or two pound long crooked sticks on the floor in a corner of the E. Lake Street pub, clacking spoons and chanting in a meditative way, occasionally breaking into a sort of improv medieval scat, ululation or yip. Ululating and yipping most loudly -- and often singing beautifully -- is Volva ("staff carrier") Kari Tauring, champion of Nordic-roots music and any tradition that connects people with nature in a spiritual way.

Tauring, a singer, teacher and believer in the mores of the ancient Earth peoples, sees symbolism in every twig, drop and stone. She is dedicated to what nature-based rituals and traditions, both lacking in so many modern lives, can teach us. She seems happiest when connecting the old with the new, as in her description of an upcoming concert with musical collaborator Drew Miller as "so Retro-Future, so Bronze-Age Revival."

Fellow staff pounder and graphic designer Karin Odell, of Swedish descent, said she liked "how the rhythms imitate the real work women did."

"The object is to obscure the rhythm so much that the dancers get screwed up," Tauring said, grinning broadly. "Where's the beer lady?"

The beer lady did indeed come, bearing not glug and mead but Jameson's and Summit. An old man in a baseball jacket came around the corner, surveyed the scene, plugged his ears and giggled, then moved on. Songs in the key of Kari aren't likely to be played on KDWB.

While not completely fluent in Norwegian, she can sing and speak phrases. She has recorded two CDs, teaches rune reading as well as Norse mythology and pageantry, and performs both solo and with other musicians.

One upcoming gig is for a national gathering of heathens in Hinckley, Minn., in June. But she also is booked to teach Lutheran church-basement ladies how to pound their staffs and chant.

"It helps them understand their grandmothers, remember things that they did," Tauring said. "The old cow-calling and spinning songs take on new levels of meaning.

"What people like is that deep-root piece that gets shaken up, that goes deeper than a religion or a time frame," she said. "People feel shifted."

Casting of the runes

Feel like casting some runes? There's an app for that.

Tauring's longtime friend David De Young created an iPhone application for Tauring's book "The Runes: A Human Journey," which he also edited.

Runes are symbols for objects and qualities ranging from "sun" and "rivers" to "need" and "recognition" that are etched or painted onto round slices of wood, and held in baskets or small bags, to be drawn out at random by someone seeking answers. While Tauring takes runes seriously enough to teach courses in how to read them, she is careful not to imply that these small chunks of plum and buckthorn branches are oracles.

"Casting runes is just one way to access nature, as a guide to how to behave in the world," she said.

Tauring, 43, says too many people lack a connection to a tradition with deep roots. "We all used to have indigenous tribal systems that connected us to nature and we are aching for it," she says.

The middle child among five girls in a Lutheran family, Tauring grew up in Minnetonka "back when Ridgedale was still a bird sanctuary." Her outlook was influenced by her Wisconsin grandfather, who practiced spiritual farming and specialized in divining wells.

Always full of questions about God, Tauring said the pastors at church "would see me coming and run." When she got antsy with all the formal, sometimes silent church prayer, her grandmother encouraged her to go outside in nature, and "pray as loud as you want, talk to God like Jesus did."

Tauring doesn't see Christianity and the practices of the pagans and heathens as inherently contradictory. She says she has "a personal relationship" with Jesus, but not with any organized religion.

"Just because something is pre-Christian doesn't mean it's anti-Christian," she said. "Jesus didn't invent compassion. He embodied it."

Tauring attended Luther College in Iowa for a few years before getting a double degree in philosophy and English from St. Thomas, followed by a master's in education with a focus on curriculum development. The woman who reads runes and waves a feather fan while chanting has also taught a class on persuasion and negotiation, including a segment on logical analysis, at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design.

Science, she says, is not refuting spirituality, but catching up with it. Her friend De Young, who has known Tauring for 16 years, agrees.

"The pagans were thought of as crazy until astrophysicists started finding scientific bases for the belief that we are beings made of energy, not matter, and that you can move energy from one person to another," said De Young, who acts as "a filter to the skeptics' world" for Tauring. He once observed a crowd react at the alt-rock Turf Club in St. Paul while she did some chanting between band sets. "It's not for everyone, but people were paying attention," he said.

From runes to reality

Considering her intense interest in Norwegian heritage, it's surprising Tauring had never been to the Mother Country until last summer. She applied to be on a reality TV show about descendants' first-time impressions of the country, and was flown over as one of about a dozen newbie Norway visitors. The show premieres today on Norwegian television.

Being from the Upper Midwest, Tauring felt much more steeped in Norwegian traditions than cast members from the East and West coasts: "I mean, some of them had never even tried lefse," she said. In addition to giving her a chance to walk the same fjords that the ancient Volva women did centuries before her, the experience was great research.

"A lot of my work is about healing cultural grief, and nothing brings out cultural dysfunction like reality TV," she said. "I can't talk much about it until it airs, but all the press release says about me is that the hostess was a little grossed out that I used essential oils instead of deodorant."

For now, Tauring is back to weaving all the hats she wears into one big folk tapestry, and preaching the gospel of Nordic-roots connection.

"What surprises people about these spiritual traditions is that they're so attached to the daily work of life, like chanting for better butter while churning," she said. "There's no extra mumbo-jumbo that has no purpose. You have to think, how is it useful?"

Now that's Scandinavian.

Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046